When is Enough Enough?

Daughter competing last Saturday

Competition last Saturday

My 15 year old said a funny thing last week. It was after a Sunday school discussion I led. This otherwise outgoing and social teenager didn’t see anyone to sit with at the teen Godspell production, so she ended up in the back row of my class. It was about repentance—re-thinking our choices and where we’re headed in life—as one way we say, “Yes,” to the paschal mystery’s invitation to newness of life.

On the way home she said, “I often think I want to reinvent myself, but then I think about the time and effort required, and I realize it’s just not going to happen.” She said it with a pithy little laugh, like it was someone else’s quip she was repeating. I asked her what she meant, and she elaborated. “I think I want to compete better so I have to work out more, and I want straight A’s so I have to study more, and I want to be a more giving person so I have to participate more, but I don’t have more time for any of it.”

Well, she has a point. She trains with her team 2 hours every weekday and often more on weekends. She attends an academically competitive prep school and gets good grades — A’s in almost every class, just not all at the same time in the same semester. She does about 2 hours of homework every day, including weekends. Some nights she starts homework at 9:30 p.m. when we get home from the gym. I’m not saying she has no room for improvement. She does, but she is a good time manager, and that includes treasuring the unscheduled time she has and needs.

Her comment could have been in response to my class. The class was about how we all need course corrections on life’s journey. People who are disciplined about frequent self-examination may find only small corrections needed, while those who seldom check if they’re on track may need bigger corrections. If we re-think where we’re headed in life and find we’re on the wrong course entirely, a total turn-around may be what we need. The point is at some point, we all have to stop what we’re doing to take stock. When we make room for God and expose ourselves to transformational grace in the process, we say, “Yes!” to the invitation to experience life in profoundly new ways.

My first thought about her comment was she had taken quick stock and was saying, “No thank you” to the invitation to change. Upon reflection, though, I hear in her comment some wisdom that was NOT in my class. And that is being content with what you have to give at this moment. No one has unlimited resources, including time, so we all have to prioritize. The sky is not the limit. It takes a particular equanimity to give what you have, without self-condemnation for not having more, and to let God do the miracle of making it enough. I think I heard in her comment that who she is now is enough for now. Maybe next time the 15 year old should be teaching the class.

Join the conversation. How do you discern the course-corrections you need without self-flagellation?

Copyright 2014 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

 

5 Steps to Forgiveness

how to forgiveWe talked about forgiveness in Sunday school last week.  The paschal mystery invites us to experience newness of life, and releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness is one way to say “yes” to that invitation.  A couple participants asked me for my presentation material and notes, so I thought it might be timely to recycle an old post on the 5 Steps to Forgiveness.

Step 1: Name the Action
I am looking for action verbs, here. Putting a name to the wrong done against me sets that action apart as unacceptable. It establishes a healthy boundary defining what is and isn’t ok with me. In the process of pinning down the exact action that upset me, however, I might realize the offense wasn’t so bad. Maybe hunger or fatigue exacerbated my response. Maybe my offender made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory. Realizing this gives me an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of my resentment. It also allows me to release resentment for one who meant no harm.

Step 2: Name my Feelings
The key here is a simple, blame-free statement. “When you X, I feel Y.” Most things that upset me result less from malicious intent than people intent on their own agenda, oblivious to repercussions. Showing someone the unintended consequences of his actions creates the opportunity for genuine remorse. Even genuine remorse might not pry the lid off my resentment if I fear being hurt again. A candid conversation about how to prevent repeat performances can restore trust. Sometimes wrongdoers have good ideas for that.

Step 3: Own my Actions 
There’s no question that the absence of remorse makes forgiveness hard. The thing I do here is take the unremorseful offender out of the matter and focus on my side of the street instead. I take a cold hard look at how the wounds I received played a role in the wounds I inflicted, and I take responsibility for my impaired response. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

Step 4: Seek God’s Forgiveness
We act out our relationship with God in how we treat others. Recognizing how I treat God in the face of how God blesses me fills me with remorse and desire for renewal. When I can honestly say I care less about what my offender deserves than I care about restoring my relationship with God, I’m on the home stretch to forgiveness.

Step 5: Respond to God’s Grace
It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what my offender deserves but as a response to God’s grace towards me!

Join the conversation. Which step do you think is the hardest? Which helps the most?
Copyright 2014 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Prisoners of the Past

past wounds and forgivenessLast month in the county jail we were working on healthy communication, but we had one of those sessions where we never got to the class material because some issues needed airing out.  This is where group therapy gets its potency.  The women’s honesty and courage in sharing their experiences raise everyone’s self-awareness and understanding.  Here’s what came out.

Lauren (name changed) forgave her abusive mother.  It happened in a worship service a local congregation provides for inmates on Sundays.  Lauren described feeling lighter, as if chains wrapped around her ankles had fallen off.  Her mother died years ago, but Lauren’s experience was as powerful as if she had spoken to her mother directly.  Without the blinders of anger and resentment obstructing her view, Lauren could see her mother suffered the same kinds of child abuse to which she had exposed Lauren.  Lauren can now see the threads of both victim and perpetrator weaving through the complex tangle that was her mother’s life.

Lauren said something I lingered over.  Seeing her mother as an abuse victim didn’t allow Lauren to release resentment.  Releasing resentment allowed Lauren to see more clearly the reality of her mother’s complicated situation, and finally, to have compassion for her messed up life.  Forgiveness came first.

Christa (name changed) had a tough week.  With several new inmates in the pod, the environment gets loud at times.  It’s driving Christa crazy, and she’s struggling to contain her anger.  In the jail we talk about anger as a secondary emotion, like the visible part of an iceberg floating on top of emotions hidden under the surface.  Christa had no hesitation in identifying the emotion underlying her anger.  It’s loss of control.  In childhood, Christa endured rampant sexual abuse by her father, brother, uncles, “pretend uncles,” and anyone else to whom her family made her available.  It started at an age before she knew it was wrong.  There was no protection for Christa.  And no control.

Christa drags feelings about loss of control from her childhood like chains wrapped around her ankles into her present situations.  “It’s all connected,” she lamented wearily when examining the origins of her recent anger.  Indeed, it is a worthy lament.

We all do that.  Whenever anger flares, the source of the flame is rarely the immediate situation.  The present situation is merely a spark igniting something that was already there deep within us.  Unresolved hurts from our past – feelings of betrayal, abandonment, humiliation, or shame—lurk within us like invisible explosive gas.  For me it’s hurt pride—feeling put down, belittled, or disrespected.  Even being ignored can be felt as a form of disrespect.

We may think we’re hiding our feelings or that we have reconciled ourselves to past misfortunes.  Here’s the test.  If a seemingly innocuous situation can send us into a fiery fit of anger, then something lies unresolved within.  And we drag that tinderbox of past emotions into every new encounter.  Christa protested, “But forgiveness is hard.”  For someone with her past, I honestly cannot fathom how hard.  Nonetheless, forgiveness remains the only way I know to free us, once and for all, from the chains of painful pasts.

Join the conversation.  When your anger flares, what underlying emotions fuel the fire?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com

Forgiveness in Jail

forgiveness in jailWe’re talking about forgiveness in the Dallas County jail this week.  Everyone in jail has been charged with some offense, obviously, and many long for forgiveness from victims or family members who suffer consequences from their actions.  Many also struggle to forgive themselves for the direction their lives have taken.  Many are mothers who grieve not being there for their kids, and they can’t forgive themselves for falling down on that job.

A startling number of incarcerated women became victims of sexual abuse and violence long before committing any crime.  In some cases, the signs of abuse are physical, permanent, and quite visible.  Other signs are hidden.  Child abuse has its most insidious and lasting effects when children are made to feel culpable in some way for the abuse against them.  Sometimes they blame themselves for not preventing abuse against others, too.  While some trauma survivors want to forgive their abusers in order to heal painful pasts and to find personal transformation, others need self-forgiveness for being crime victims.  In short, the undercurrents nudging us to forgive and to seek forgiveness rampage like tidal waves through this group.  Self-forgiveness proves the toughest nut of all.

Many of the inmates with trauma histories are incarcerated for criminal behavior consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder behavior patterns.  When we talk about forgiveness, anger management, or any psychological issue in the jail, we use particular care not to trigger trauma memories.  Jail for most is not a safe place for processing the wounds of trauma.  Trauma memories can trigger PTSD behaviors that endanger other inmates, and that has severe consequences in jail.  Jail is not a treatment facility, after all.

Hence, the forgiveness discussion requires a “trauma informed” approach.  One way we prevent exposing inmates to triggers is not giving anyone a chance to share trauma stories.  I make it clear that the introspection exercises they do in class are for their eyes only.  Another way we steer clear of trauma triggers is to focus exercises on current resentments the participants are experiencing in jail.  Those might result from tensions with other inmates or tensions with friends or family on the outside.  It’s rare that an inmate does not have one or the other.

To be candid, I have an “elephant in the room” feeling about focusing introspection on current irritations.  On the one hand it is easier to learn the steps to forgiveness with resentments that are not deeply held or woven into the fabric of one’s life.  On the other hand, it’s also something of a missed opportunity that makes my heart ache.  When I do forgiveness workshops with church groups, the hunger participants have to be healed once and for all from old wounds is utterly compelling.  Of course, one who hungers, in all likelihood, is in a physically and psychologically safe place for confronting past hurts.  As much as I want to expose inmates’ deepest wounds to the healing power of forgiveness, our first obligation is to keep everyone safe.

An exquisitely talented therapist leading the class with me is more than capable of managing any difficult psychological situations that arise.  I’ll probably throw in a closing comment about applying the steps to process deeper wounds when one is in a safe place to do so.  Tune in next week for some observations about what we all learned.

Join the conversation.  What conditions make it safe to start the forgiveness and healing process?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

How to Forgive in 5 Steps

how to forgiveIt wouldn’t be terribly helpful to ponder why forgiveness is hard without considering what exactly we can do to overcome the obstacles. It seems to me there is a lot written about the healing power of forgiveness but very little about how actually to do it. Here’s where spiritual conditioning can help us do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. These are the steps that help me.

1. Name the Action
I am looking for specific action verbs, here. Putting a name to the wrong done against me sets that action apart as unacceptable. It establishes a healthy boundary defining what is and isn’t ok with me. In the process of pinning down the exact action that upset me, however, I might realize the offense wasn’t so bad. Maybe hunger or fatigue exacerbated my response. Maybe my offender made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory. Realizing this gives me an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of my resentment. It also allows me to release resentment for one who meant no harm.

2. Name my Feelings
The key here is a simple, blame-free statement. “When you X, I feel Y.” Most things that upset me result less from malicious intent than people intent on their own agenda, oblivious to repercussions. Showing someone the unintended consequences of his actions creates the opportunity for genuine remorse. Even genuine remorse might not pry the lid off my resentment if I fear being hurt again. A candid conversation about how to prevent repeat performances can restore trust. Sometimes wrongdoers have good ideas for that.

3. Own my Response
There’s no question that the absence of remorse makes forgiveness hard. The thing I do here is take the unremorseful offender out of the matter and focus on my side of the street instead. I take a cold hard look at how the wounds I received played a role in the wounds I inflicted, and I take responsibility for my actions. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

4. Ask for Grace
I believe we act out our relationship with God in how we treat others. Recognizing how I treat God in the face of how God blesses me fills me with remorse and desire for renewal. When I can honestly say I care less about what my offender deserves than I care about restoring my relationship with God, I’m on the home stretch to forgiveness.

5. Respond to God’s Grace
It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what my offender deserves but as a response to God’s grace towards me!

Join the conversation. Which step do you think is the hardest? Which helps the most?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

5 Reasons Forgiveness is Hard

forgive and forgetHas anyone ever told you to “forgive and forget” or “just let it go”? They make forgiveness sound easy, as if it’s an automatic response to deciding forgiveness is in our own best interest.  But releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness can be monstrously difficult, even when we genuinely want to leave old episodes in the past. It helps to see clearly what holds us back from the forgiveness we desire.  Here are five things that make forgiveness hard.

1. Misconceptions
Sometimes what forgiveness is NOT poses obstacles to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the offense, liberate anyone from consequences, or restore trust. Forgiveness does not compel anyone to forget anything, to tell anyone they’re forgiven, or to stay in relationship at all. If I’m laboring under the misconception that forgiveness requires any of these things, I might quite understandably find forgiveness impossible to do. Fortunately, forgiveness is simply the release of resentment and claim to retribution—no more and no less. It is possible to release resentment and then end a relationship or return to a different kind of relationship with less trust.

2. Accountability
Most of us expect a little recognition for good deeds and to be held accountable for our mistakes. When someone does us wrong, we want that person held accountable. It flows from our sense of justice. If our offender appears to be waltzing off scot free, with no one holding her to account for her wrongdoing, we naturally feel drawn to fill that void. Thus, our desire for justice and accountability can work against releasing resentment.

3. Superiority
Being the victim of someone’s harmful choices can have several consequences. It can really hurt of course, but being the victim can have subtle payoffs as well. Recognizing another’s moral failings can make us feel better about ourselves, or at least better than the moral flunky who did us wrong. In addition to feeling superior, we might feel entitled to something from that person. Our attachment to superiority or entitlement pulls us away from releasing resentment.

4. Connection
In a badly tattered relationship, resentment may be the only thing left between two people. If it’s someone I think I need in my life, I may cling to the resentment because it’s all that’s left. This phenomenon sometimes plays out in parent relationships with adult children. A parent might cling to resentment for adolescent behavior as her only connection to a time when her child needed her. That desire for connection is at odds with releasing the past.

5. Remorse
The big kahuna of forgiveness obstacles is a lack of remorse. Genuine remorse on the part of our offender gives us a sense that forgiveness is complete. Without it, forgiveness feels one-sided and unfinished. Sometimes offender remorse is impossible, though. An addict deeply in denial, for example, doesn’t have the capacity for remorse. In the case of long past childhood wounds, the offender may have died. Even in stubborn cases without any offender remorse whatsoever, there are steps we can take to lead us to the healing power of forgiveness.

Join the conversation. What has made forgiveness most difficult for you?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Hiding Depression

hiding depression and shameA friend recently shared disturbing news of a somewhat-related-by-marriage 23 year old who attempted suicide.  My friend described her as a genuinely nice and polite girl, the cheeriest in her family.  She is still in the hospital, so please join me in prayers for her healing.

The story struck a chord in me, because a young man somewhat-related-by-marriage to me recently took his own life at age 20.  There are no words for the gaping painful void experienced by those who survive him.  I recently had dinner with someone who held him as a newborn and loved him.  This person is a medical doctor who specializes in end of life care.  She was a Hospice doctor for years.  For all her experience and insights on death and dying, this death undid her.  It seemed to make her question bedrock things she thought she knew.  So, please join me in healing prayers also for his family and friends.

These revelations instigated a conversation about the depths of depression, how some people send signals for help, and how others hide it.  One friend commented:

Having suffered depression, I can empathize with those who find themselves at such a low point in their lives. It’s a prison that is very difficult to escape. For many reasons, those who suffer from depression find it almost impossible to talk about their feelings. I think there’s a certain feeling of shame associated with depression. I know I felt like no one else would understand, I must be unworthy of love or happiness, and I couldn’t complain when everyone else seemed to be able to deal with life. It felt like huge and insurmountable failure on my part and the loneliest feeling.  That first step is so hard and such a relief, as well, to finally be able to talk and be heard.

The invitation to explore depression as a source of shame is too compelling to pass by.  The stakes are too high.  As recent posts have explored, shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves.  For one in the jaws of depression, the false messages include:  I’m different.  Everyone else can deal with life.  I alone am a failure.

Rather significantly, the women sharing these feelings all found Buddhist teaching to be the salve that saved them from the depths.  I wondered if it is because the first Noble Truth—life is suffering—meets us where we are with no apology, no facade, and no reason to hide the truth.  Everyone who experiences life experiences suffering, so I am not different, I am not alone, and I have nothing to hide.  I am alive.  Another friend responded that Buddhist teachings about releasing attachments to ideas, especially ideas about self-identity, helped her shed layers of past hurt, guilt and conditioning.

Our self-made culture conditions us to hide suffering, but it also conditions us not to see it.  If we notice too much, we might expose or embarrass someone or we might intrude uninvited on someone’s private matters.  Or maybe we just tell ourselves we’re respecting another’s privacy when the truth is we’re afraid to encounter another’s suffering.  Airbrushing suffering paints an unreal picture, and it costs way too much.  How much better would our world it be if we all had the courage to encounter suffering—our own and each other’s?

Join the conversation.  Do you have a friend that needs to talk and to be heard?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.